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Gladys Nederlander: One-Acts for A

During the Golden Age of 1950s television, audiences had the opportunity every week to see classic theater and new drama performed by actors such as Henry Fonda, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Julie Harris and Dame Judith Anderson. Over the years, however, the commercial networks have all but abandoned adaptations of plays, making such theatrical showcases as “Playhouse 90" golden memories.

Gladys Nederlander is determined to bring theater back into the living room. As executive producer for Nederlander Television and Film Productions, she has executive-produced such TV movies as “A Case of Libel,” “Intimate Strangers” and “Vengeance: The Story of Tony Cimo.”

Last year she produced for the Arts & Entertainment Network “American Playwrights Theater,” which featured one-acts by such writers as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Nederlander’s new one-act showcase for A&E; is “General Motors Playwrights Theater,” which debuted last month with “Clara”, a drama by Arthur Miller.

On Tuesday, Anthony Edwards and Annette O’Toole star in Jonathan C. Levine’s “Unpublished Letters.”

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The monthly series also will star such actors as Olympia Dukakis, Edward Herrmann, Fisher Stevens and Ione Skye. Lauren Bacall is the host.

Nederlander, who also has co-produced six Broadway plays, including the 1980 revival of “West Side Story,” discussed “General Motors Playwrights Theater” with Susan King.

Q: How did the series come about?

A: I had lunch with Arthur Miller about two years ago. I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I have been writing one acts.” I said, “One Acts?” I left lunch and went back to my office and thought, “Here is Arthur Miller writing one acts. Where could you put them?” In the theater, people don’t feel like they are getting enough for their money, so I thought th only place is really cable.

We took the idea to General Motors and they loved the idea of being a part of something of “the elitist quality” and we got it on A&E.; people really look forward to seeing something different on cable. I have done a lot of work for CBS, NBC and ABC. I think I got one letter saying, “I thought Stacy Keach was handsome,” but none saying, “Thank you so much for bringing quality programming to TV of this nature.” I get hundreds of letters (stating that) from cable viewers.

Q: Did Arthur Miller write “Clara” specifically for the series?

A: He wrote this about five or six years ago. It only appeared at Lincoln Center and once in England. As Arthur says, he is so much more popular in England than he is in the United States; he can never understand why.

He came on the set and watched it and he was thrilled. That’s what made this whole project so unique and wonderful.

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Q: Did you commission any of the plays?

A: I would love to do that. That was the case with Robert Anderson. He is a personal friend and he called me and said, “Look, I have got one-acts, but I have the most wonderful idea I have been wanting to write. So I am going to write it for you. There is no obligation. You can see if you want to use it.” He brought it in and it was beautiful and I wept.

Q: You got some really terrific actors to appear in the plays.

A: The word gets out in the industry. I have had different agents calling me and saying, “What have you got?” Certainly, it has happened with the agents for the stars, especially stars that are a little older. There are great parts for them.

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The second play we did, “Unpublished Letters,” we got Anthony Edwards and Annette O’Toole, Another one was written by Israel Horovitz years ago-- “It’s Called the Sugar Plum.” It’s about two kids at Cambridge, one is a freshman and one is a senior. We hope these actors will attract younger viewers.

I am frightened to think that people aren’t aware of theater as they should be. It is scary. Q: Last year, you also produced the TNT production of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” with Vanessa Redgrave.

A: When we brought it (the play) to Broadway, I had the television rights. I went to all the networks and they said, “God, we loved to do it, but we couldn’t sell it.” I went to Ted Turner’s people and they came up to New York to look at it and they said, “Wow, we love it. We are going to do it.”

Well, you know what happened to that. I thought that certainly we would be critically acclaimed, but it went through the roof with viewers. They really turned it on and stayed with it.

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Q: Why are the commercial networks generally scared of televising adaptations of plays?

A: They used to do them. I have had lots of talks with the networks about it. When we went into television production, it was with the hope we would be able to attract television companies to theater, but they all looked at me with this kind of glazed look. They would say, “Oh, theater. In the theater you are a captive audience, but when you are in your home, someone calls or the phone rings or you get up to get a drink.” I said “Don’t be silly. You don’t understand. We are not going to put it on as a play; we are going to put it on as a TV event.”

“General Motors Playwrights Theater” airs Tuesday at 6 and 10pm on A&E.;


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